A Sociological Perspective On Education Part 1

Education is a part of an individuals becoming a social member. In this article we are considering the question of what education is from a sociological framework. What functions in the society actually the process of education serve? So we are considering two main questions viz.
  1. What is the role of education in the society?
  2. Why are the different social groups differing in their educational levels?
The idea of formal education for the masses is very recent. Only after the industrial revolution the masses were provided with free, compulsory, education by the state. Why? Earlier the education was limited to a few people who were rich enough to afford it or were part of the clergy. The same case was in the Indian context also. There were no state run “schools” which made sure that the education would be provided to the masses.
But in the last 100 years or so, education has become a major growth industry. And when anything becomes a commodity, the classical demand and supply theory does come into picture. The same has happened with education in the contemporary era. Now higher education being a prized commodity, the consumers are those who can pay for it.
First we take into account the functionalist perspective on education. The two questions that we have started with are
“What are the functions of education for the society as a whole?”
In the functionalist perspective this leads to an assessment of the contribution made by educational to the maintenance of the social structure.
The other question is:
“What are the functional relationships between education and other parts of the social system?”
This leads to analysis which examines the relationship between educational and the economic systems for example.
The functionalist view point in general tend to focus on the positive contributions made by education to the social structure.
We now consider the stand points of various functionalists’ on this issue.

According to Durkheim the major function of education was the transmission of society’s norms and values.

Society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity; education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child form the beginning the essential similarities which collective life demands.

Without these “essential similarities” the social life is impossible. The creation of social solidarity is an essential task for the formation and sustenance of the societies; and education does this. Durkheim argues that:

To become attached to society, the child must feel in it something that is real, alive and powerful, which dominates the person and to which he also owes the best part of himself.


Education and in particular, the teaching of history, provides this link between the individual and the society. This view can be illustrated by the educational practice in India. The common curriculum developed by NCERT has helped to instil the shared norms and values into a population with diverse backgrounds. It has provided a shared language and a common history for immigrants from every country in Europe. The Indian student learn about the great leaders, the freedom movement and the heritage that they have. In every textbook the pledge that is presented actually socializes the student into a commitment to society as a whole. You can look at the other article in which the history and its relation to the curriculum is present.
Durkheim argues that in complex industrial societies, the school serves a function which cannot be provided either by family or peer groups. Membership in the society as a whole is not based on kinship or personal choice. In the school the individual must learn to cooperate with those who are neither their kin nor their friends. Thus the school provides a small scale model for the society.

It is by respecting the school rules that the child learns to respect the rules in general, that he develops the habit of self control and restraint simply because he should control and restraint himself. It is first initiation into austerity of duty. Serious life has now begun.

Also Durkheim argues that education teaches the individual specific skills necessary for his future occupation, which is particularly important in the industrial societies where a complex division of labour exists. The social solidarity in the industrial society comes from the interdependence of the labour in the process of production. The necessity of combination produces cooperation and social solidarity. The schools thus transmit both:
  1. The general values which provide ‘necessary homogeneity for social survival.’
  2. The specific skills which provide ‘necessary diversity for social cooperation.’
The industrial society is thus united by value consciousness and a specialized division of labour. Durkheim assumes that the norms and values of transmitted by the educational system are those of the society as a whole rather than of the ruling elite or ruling class. This produces a very different view of the role of education in the society.
Parsons argues that after the primary socialization within the family, the school takes over as the ‘focal socializing agency’. The school acts as a link between the family and the society as a whole, thus preparing the child for his adult role. In the family the child is treated in terms of ‘particularistic’ standards whereas in the society the standards are ‘universalistic’. By particularistic it is meant here that in the family the child is treated as their particular child rather than using yardsticks which can be applied to everybody; and by universalistic it is meant that the child is judged in terms of yardsticks which are applicable to all individuals.
Within the family the status of the child is ascribed, by birth. But the status in adult life is largely achieved. Thus the child moves on from the particularistic standards in the family to the universalistic standards of the society in general. The school is the preparing ground for this transition. The school has universalistic standards against which all the students are measured, these are independent of the sex, race, family background or the class of the student. The schools operate on meritocratic principles; status is achieved on the basis of merit. This is one of the essential aspects of the modern industrial society, where meritocratic principles are applied to all its members. The children are ‘trained’ to be the future citizens in the schools; they are imparted with the basic values of society. This value consensus is essential for the society to operate smoothly. Two major values that the schools inculcate in the students are:
  1. Value of achievement.
  2. Value of equal opportunity.
The value of achievement is itself fostered by rewarding the students which have high levels of achievement; and by placing the individuals in the same situation in the classroom so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality and opportunity. These values have an important role to play in the society as a whole. An advanced industrial society requires highly motivated, achievement oriented skilled workforce; and the school prepares the students exactly for this. All the students high and the low achievers see system as just and fair, as they all had an equal chance to begin with.
Another function that the school serves is that of selection of the individuals for their future role in the society. By testing, evaluating the students for their skills and capacities they can select the future jobs for which the future citizen is best suited for. Thus the school is seen as a major facilitator in the role allocation for the future citizens.

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore
Davis and Moore agree with Parsons about the role allocating function of the school but they link educational system more directly to the social stratification. The social stratification is seen as a mechanism which ensures that the most talented and able members of the society are allocated to those positions, which are functionally most important to the society.
Though the thoughts of Davis and Moore represent the common sense view of education, there are certain criticisms of them. Particularly important is the questionable relationship between academic credentials and occupational reward is loose. Another reason is doubt about the proposition that the educational system grades people in terms of ability, it has been argued that the intelligence has little effect upon educational attainment. Finally there is considerable evidence that suggests the influence of social stratification largely prevents effective grading of individuals in terms of their abilities.

Sociology: Themes and Perspectives
Harlambos and Heald
Oxford 2002
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3 Responses to A Sociological Perspective On Education Part 1

  1. kornadan says:

    this are very useful informations.. thank you!!

  2. Pingback: “Babies are such a nice way to start people”*… | (Roughly) Daily

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